The Pentagon Wants to Create a Bioengineered Insect Army to “Protect Crops”

Critics fear it could become a bio-weapon.


The Pentagon is studying whether insects can be enlisted to combat crop loss during agricultural emergencies.

The bugs would carry genetically engineered viruses that could be deployed rapidly if critical crops such as corn or wheat became vulnerable to a drought, a natural blight or a sudden attack by a biological weapon.

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The concept envisions the viruses making genetic modifications that protect the plants immediately, during a single growing season.

The program, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has a warm and fuzzy name: ‘Insect Allies’. But some critics find the whole thing creepy.

A team of skeptical scientists and legal scholars published an article in the journal Science on Thursday arguing that the Insect Allies program opens a “Pandora’s box” and involves technology that “may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery”.

A website created by the critics puts their objection more bluntly: “The DARPA program is easily weaponized”.

DARPA’s program manager for Insect Allies, Blake Bextine, pushed back on the Science article, saying the program is solely for peaceful purposes, has been reviewed by government agencies responsible for agricultural safety and has multiple layers of safeguards built into the research protocols, including total containment of the insects.

“I don’t think that the public needs to be worried. I don’t think that the international community needs to be worried,” Bextine told The Washington Post.

He acknowledged that Insect Allies involves new technologies that potentially could be “dual use” – deployed, in theory, for either defensive or offensive purposes. But that’s true for almost any advanced technology, he said.

“I think anytime you’re developing a new and revolutionary technology, there is that potential for dual-use capability. But that is not what we are doing. We are delivering positive traits to plants. We’re focused on that positive goal. We want to make sure we ensure food security, because food security is national security in our eyes,” Bextine said.

The program currently envisions three types of pestiferous insects as allies: aphids, leafhoppers and whiteflies. In nature these bugs routinely spread viruses among plants.

Recent advances in gene editing, including the relatively cheap and simple system known as CRISPR (for clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats), could potentially allow researchers to customize viruses to achieve a specific goal in the infected plant.

The engineered virus could switch on or off certain genes that, for example, control a plant’s growth rate, which could be useful during an unexpected, severe drought.

Bextine said there are multiple layers of protection to ensure that this technology does not have unintended ecological effects. He also said that the program is not targeting the germline cells of plants and thus would not lead to heritable traits.

The DARPA goal is to find a way to make a temporary, beneficial modification to plants in a single growing season.

This research may never bear fruit. That’s the norm for most DARPA projects.

The agency, famous for its key role in laying the foundation for the Internet half a century ago, typically funds research with a low probability of success but a potentially huge pay-off.

Food security is a major issue not likely to vanish anytime in the coming decades, as a more crowded planet experiences climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity and the surging demand for food and water. Crop warfare is another concern.

In ancient times, armies burned fields as a strategic element of conquest. In today’s world the threats could include the distribution of natural pathogens or something engineered in a laboratory.

DARPA’s description of Insect Allies touts the rapid-response feature of the concept.

“National security can be quickly jeopardized by naturally occurring threats to the crop system, including pathogens, drought, flooding, and frost, but especially by threats introduced by state or non-state actors,” the DARPA website states.

“Insect Allies seeks to mitigate the impact of these incursions by applying targeted therapies to mature plants with effects that are expressed at relevant timescales – namely, within a single growing season. ”

The authors of the Science paper contend that Insect Allies could potentially be interpreted as a violation of an international treaty called the Biological Weapons Convention. They do not go so far as to claim that DARPA has nefarious motives.

They have said that if observers see the program as having an offensive military applications that could undermine adherence to the biological weapons treaty.

“We argue that there is the risk that the program is seen as not justified by peaceful purposes,” co-author Silja Voeneky, a professor of international law at the University of Freiburg, told The Washington Post.

She said the use of insects as a key feature of the program is particularly alarming, because insects could be deployed cheaply and surreptitiously by malevolent actors.

“In our opinion the justifications are not clear enough. For example, why do they use insects? They could use spraying systems,” Voeneky said.

“To use insects as a vector to spread diseases is a classical bioweapon.”

The biological weapons treaty does permit research that has a clearly stated peaceful purpose, said Andy Weber, a former Pentagon official overseeing nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs and now a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks.

Weber noted that the biodefense community has been concerned about the potential use of new gene-editing technologies by hostile actors.

“Over time, terrorist groups and individuals could also exploit these new capabilities, but I don’t see that as something that is going to happen this year or next year. But it’s certainly something that we want to get ahead of,” he said.

James Stack, a plant pathologist at Kansas State University who is serving on the advisory panel of the Insect Allies project, said the alarm sounded by the Science article is unfounded.

“It’s nowhere near the application stage. This is to determine if this approach is viable or not. I don’t understand the level of concern raised in this paper, and to jump ahead and accuse DARPA of using this as a screen to develop biological weapons is outrageous,” Stack said.

He went on: “There’s risk inherent in life and you just have to manage it well. And I think as we move into a more crowded planet it’s going to put increasing demands on our food systems, our water systems. We’re going to need all the tools in the tool box that we possibly have.”

One of those tools is genetic modification of organisms through laboratory techniques. Insect Allies might be so effective as an gene-editing technology that it could become a standard procedure for farmers, said Guy Reeves, a co-author of the Science paper and an evolutionary biologist at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology.

He said the genetic modifications – delivered by what he refers to as “horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents” – would likely spread into fields reserved for organic, non-genetically modified crops.

“If this program is acceptable, and we decide this technology is something we want to move forward with, why would we use any other technology for anything?” he said.

“If this technology works, almost by definition, national governments will not be able to control its spread.”

DARPA said this week that the Insect Allies program includes grants to four research institutions: the Boyce Thompson Institute, Penn State, Ohio State and the University of Texas at Austin.

The research is still in its initial phase, Bextine said. The first major achievement is the demonstration that an aphid can infect a mature corn plant with a modified virus containing a gene that creates fluorescence.

The corn glowed.

The Pentagon Ran a Secret Program to Find UFOs. Should We Expect Aliens?

Sight Unseen

Sightings of aircraft moving at high speeds with no visible signs of propulsion. Objects hovering over the sea without any apparent means of lift. Military operators exchanging nervous messages as they try to make sense of what they are recording. These scenes are part of an unprecedented disclosure from the New York Times, one that outlined details about a top secret Pentagon program devoted to the investigation of UFOs.

Between 2007 and 2012, the United States government spent $22 million of its annual $600 billion defense budget on the so-called Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program. This is the first time the Government has admitted the existence of such operations. According to Pentagon spokesperson Laura Ochoa, the programs were terminated because “there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding.”

According to the New York Times, the scheme, now defunded, still exists in a more informal fashion. “The Department of Defence takes seriously all threats and potential threats to our people, our assets, and our mission and takes action whenever credible information is developed,” Ochoa said.

So does this revelation signal the existence of alien life visiting Earth? Is the program just a political pet project? We asked a panel of scientists and analysts to weigh in on the significance (or lack thereof) of this revelation.

Below are their thoughts regarding what the Pentagon’s secret UFO program means in terms of international relations, scientific advancement, the existence of UFOs, and our search for life in the cosmos.

Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute:

The good news is that the New York Times story vindicates the claim that a conspiracy of silence has shrouded the Defense Department when it comes to this phenomenon. Indeed, it seems there really was some activity to look into — the possibility that visitors from light-years away have been sailing our skies. I get the impression that the principal motivation was not to verify (or not) extraterrestrial activity, but to check on the possibility of Russian or Chinese aviation developments.

The bad news for saucer sympathizers is that the investigation doesn’t seem to have come up with any really good evidence. Indeed, if the evidence was obviously convincing, the investigation would have been broadened, not cut back or terminated.

Then there are many other questions one could ask: why give so much of the funding for this project to an individual who has long advocated the point of view that Earth is being visited (and, I note, someone whose background is not science)? What you want – and what the UFO investigations of a half-century ago had – is a body of experts who come to the evidence with open minds.

What’s truly amazing is that, for more than a half-century, some folks have claimed visiting craft are hanging out in our airspace. But the evidence remains debatable, to be generous. On the contrary, when the Spaniards invaded Peru at the beginning of the 16th century, the Inca weren’t still arguing the point 50 years later. They knewthat someone “alien” was afoot in the land. Somehow, the putative extraterrestrials who’ve decided to visit our planet have managed to keep their activities clandestine, and the good evidence secret from everyone but the U.S. government. That’s a tough assignment!

Andrew Siemion, Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley:

My opinion as a scientist is that any objective description of any phenomena should be backed up by evidence and, despite many decades of reports of various UFO and abduction phenomena, we have only personal anecdotes and ambiguous photography. Moreover, astronomers spend their lives looking at the sky with a wide variety of telescopes and techniques, and we have never snapped a picture of a spaceship. For the moment, our searches for radio and laser signals from intelligent life and investigation of astrophysical anomalies (SETI) offer us the best opportunity to detect extraterrestrial intelligence, should it exist.

All of that said, the possibility that, in the past, our solar system could have been visited by an advanced extraterrestrial species, or that we may be visited in the future, is real. We know that intelligent life capable of interstellar travel arose at least once in our Universe, and it might have arisen many, many times.

Trey Menefee, Independent Researcher, Open Source Intelligence Expert, Former Lecturer at the Hong Kong Institute of Education:

I think the US Navy and Air Force have a lot of weird videos and stories to tell. I think the issue is not unreliable narrators, but unreliable interpreters of confusing, conflicting, and otherwise baffling data and presumed facts.

I think the secrecy and closed-door nature of the investigations means that they likely fall victim to the same cognitive traps the Chilean Navy fell into where they didn’t question the ‘priors,’ the assumptions that underpinned their analysis and came to ‘unidentifiable’ conclusions. If the military released all the data, OSINT [Open Source Intelligence] researchers would likely figure what happened better and faster than these classified investigations.

Peter Garnavich, Chair of the Department of Astrophysics and Cosmology Physics at the University of Notre Dame:

As a scientist, I am skeptical of UFOs. They have been talked about since before I was born, yet all we ever have for evidence are grainy images and dubious eyewitnesses. The vast distances between stars and what we know about space travel make these sighting unlikely to be alien life.

As a person, I love the idea of UFOs. They are mysterious and exciting. They embody the science fiction of Star Trek and Star Wars and the idea that humans are worth visiting. So I am not surprised that the defense department had a UFO office, and I am not surprised that they are closing it. Although they could find worse ways to spend that money.

Avi Loeb, Chair of the Astronomy Department at the University of Harvard:

I was surprised to hear about the federal funding of the UFO study. This would make sense if the unidentifiable flying objects are suspected of potentially being a national security risk, used for espionage for example. At any event, they are very likely to be human-made or natural atmospheric phenomena rather than an indication of an advanced extraterrestrial technology.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But all the UFO evidence I have seen was marginal or circumstantial. We are much more likely to find evidence of alien life through our telescopes than through visual reports of pilots.

The Pentagon produces an impressive, humanlike robot. Where all this headed?

In what could be the last time that a human taunts a robot with a hockey stick and lives to brag about it, the latest demonstration of the Atlas Robot has prompted renewed fears about the future of intelligent machines.

Born in 2013, Atlas is a DARPA-funded robot developed by Boston Dynamics. Its latest iteration stands at a very human-proportioned 5’9, weighing 180lbs. Like Lee Majors circa 1974, each successive version of Atlas has gotten better, stronger, faster than it was before.

What can Atlas do? Aside from scaring the bejesus out of genius technophobic Oxbridge physicists, it’s intended to perform tasks in emergency situations too dangerous for humans. Climbing ladders, driving vehicles, carrying heavy objects, and negotiating rough terrain are all in its disaster response repertoire.

One task Atlas won’t attempt anytime soon is cleaning up Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Custom built robots were designed to swim underwater and negotiate its damaged tunnels, in order to find and remove hundreds of tons of melted radioactive fuel rods. So far, every robot sent into the reactor has failed, their wiring nuked by the intense radiation.

The Department of Defense has stated that it has no interest in using Atlas in warfare. That may well be so. But the next generation of intelligent robots may be capable of reacting to dubious Pentagon claims with human-like incredulity.

Does this new species of Robo sapiens gives you hope for the future? Or does it cause more anxiety than Sarah Connor in a mental institution? The wildly popular Atlas video struck a nerve with YouTubers, prompting ample portions of both wonder and worry.

One futurist who’s brimming with techno-optimism is Jason Silva, the host of Brain Games on the National Geographic Channel. In a recent interview with Reason TV, the loquacious Silva told us why Stephen Hawking is wrong about the future: we should look forward to our benevolent robot overlords, because we will become them.

Watch the video. URL:

Pentagon mistakenly sends live anthrax to as many as nine states

Anthrax cells and spores
Anthrax cells and spores
Bacillus anthracis vegetative cells and spores are pictured in this photomicrograph from the Defense Department anthrax information website. (Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program)
By W.J. HENNIGAN contact the reporter Crime Diseases and Illnesses U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Army facility mistakenly sent live anthrax to labs in up to nine states
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is trying to determine how many labs received live anthrax
The Army mistakenly sent live anthrax samples from a testing facility in Utah to commercial laboratories in as many as nine states, including California, as part of an effort to improve field testing for biological threats.

Pentagon officials said the accidental transfer of the potentially deadly biological agent Bacillus anthracis, better known as anthrax, had not caused any known infections.

Night raid in Syria: The special-forces op that killed Islamic State’s money man
Night raid in Syria: The special-forces op that killed Islamic State’s money man
“There are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection in potentially exposed lab workers,” Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was working with state and federal agencies to investigate the error. The CDC said it had launched its inquiry based on a request from a private commercial lab, not from the Army.

“At this time we do not suspect any risk to the general public,” the CDC said in a statement.

The CDC said it had sent investigators to all the labs and was trying to determine whether they also received live samples.

Officials said the commercial laboratories are in California, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. They did not identify the specific labs.

The Pentagon said one sample of anthrax also was sent to Osan Air Base in South Korea. A program there aims to boost biosurveillance capabilities on the Korean peninsula.

Under military research programs, anthrax spores must be inactive before they are sent to labs for study.
In this case, live spores were accidentally sent from the Army’s vast Dugway Proving Ground, about 85 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, to labs working to develop a new diagnostic test for anthrax.

Dugway is used to test defense systems for chemical and biological weapons agents, including lethal viruses and bacteria.

In 2011, Dugway was put on lockdown overnight when a vial of deadly VX nerve agent went missing. The vial later was found, but had been mislabeled.

The nation’s worst biological attack involved anthrax created in an Army facility.

Weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, five envelopes containing anthrax spores were sent to several members of Congress and the media, sparking widespread fear of another act of terrorism.

At least 22 people contracted anthrax, and five died from the infection. About 35 post offices and mail rooms were contaminated along with seven buildings on Capitol Hill.

After years of false starts, the FBI concluded in 2008 that Dr. Bruce Ivans, a researcher at the Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., was responsible. He committed suicide before he was charged.

Pentagon funding vaccine to combat airborne Ebola

The Defense Department has awarded a pharmaceutical company a multi-million-dollar contract to develop a new Ebola vaccine aimed at combating an airborne version of the Ebola virus.

According to a press release from the company, Profectus BioSciences, Inc., a “clinical-stage vaccine” firm “developing novel vaccines for the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases,” the Pentagon is looking to acquire a new weapon in its arsenal against potential bioweapons, through its Medical Countermeasure Systems-Joint Vaccine Acquisition Program, a division of the DoD’s Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense in Edgewood, Maryland.

The $9.5 million award will cover “the manufacture and IND-enabling preclinical testing of the Profectus trivalent Ebola/Marburg vaccine,” the press release stated. Also, the Pentagon’s contract covers clinical trials for the VesiculoVaxTM Zaire-Ebola virus vaccine to address the current outbreak of the virus in West Africa.

The press release continued:

The … award has been made with Battelle Memorial Institute through the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, & Nuclear Defense Information Analysis Center (CBRNIAC) contract, a Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) owned, Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (ID/IQ) contract vehicle for providing comprehensive scientific and technical research and analysis supporting the Department of Defense CBRN and Homeland Defense communities. Battelle has contracted with Profectus for manufacturing and clinical evaluation and with Charles River Laboratories and Biologics Consulting Group for preclinical testing and IND preparation, respectively.

“While the urgent need today is for a vaccine that protects against the current Ebola Zaire outbreak, we are also anticipating the needs for tomorrow,” said Army Lt. Col. Victor Suarez, the MCS-JVAP Joint Product Manager. “We are continuing to develop a trivalent vaccine that will protect our service members and DoD civilians against the major filovirus threats: Ebola Zaire, Ebola Sudan, and Marburg viruses.”

Continuing, Suarez said, “The available evidence suggests that a trivalent vaccine, such as the one under development by Profectus, is the desired end point as it would simultaneously offer protection against the current Ebola Zaire outbreak and also meet the long-term goals of preventing future infections by the Ebola Sudan and Marburg viruses.

“The DoD is optimistic that its long-term commitment to identifying and supporting safe and effective trivalent filovirus vaccines is coming to fruition and remains supportive to advancing the Profectus BioSciences trivalent Ebola/Marburg vaccine into human clinical trials as rapidly as possible,” he added.

According to, Suarez was appointed to his post in August .

John Eldridge, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer of Profectus, said his company has been working on this type of vaccine for more than a decade.

“More than 15 years have been invested in developing the genetically attenuated rVSVN4CT1 VesiculoVaxTM vaccine delivery platform and demonstrating its safety in multiple clinical trials,” he said. “To date, it is the only vaccine to demonstrate single-dose protection of monkeys against lethal challenge with highly virulent low-passage Ebola and Marburg viruses.”

As long as the U.S. military will be expected to help other nations combat the Ebola virus, the Pentagon will have an interest in protecting its personnel. Also, development of a countermeasure to combat any airborne strains of the virus, which could be utilized by an non-state actor like a terrorist organization as a bioweapon, will remain a priority.

That said, Britain’s Daily Mail reported recently that many U.S. troops ordered to West Africa to build treatment clinics were being sent without proper protective gear:

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division deployed to Ebola hotspots in West Africa to battle the deadly disease will not receive full protective Hazmat suits for their mission.

Instead, the troops will be given only masks and gloves to protect them from the potentially fatal virus, General David Rodriguez said at a Pentagon briefing.

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